British museums are in great need of revitalisation. Dan Hicks argues they can no longer pretend colonisation and its consequences are wholly in the past.
The dead don’t bury themselves. This is one of the first lessons that every student of archaeology must learn. A grave is never evidence of some Pompeii moment, a freeze-frame of someone as they were in life. It shows how that person was treated in death and by posterity.
This was thrown into relief with the publication of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s report on historical inequalities in commemoration. Entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes, the document explains, led to hundreds of thousands of instances of the unequal commemoration or non-commemoration of African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean people who fought for Britain in the first and second world wars. Claire Horton, director general of the commission, responded, “We will act to right the wrongs of the past.” “I welcome the fact that the commission … will make amends wherever possible,” chimed in the prime minister.
As the report was published, in the US a national debate about the human remains of Black people – in the context of not war memorials but the storerooms of museums – was gathering momentum. In July 2020, the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology apologised for its... Keep reading on The Guardian.